Keeping the Colorado flowing

What are we doing to safeguard the lifeblood of the American West?
BY TED KOWALSKI
Protect Colorado River

A year ago, there was not one part of Colorado that was in a drought. Today could not be more different, with the entire state of Colorado experiencing the effects of some degree of drought. This is a microcosm for the entire Western United States where drought is rampant, forest fires continue to flare up and all of us are feeling the effects of the pandemic. All of this is to say, water conservation and the continued access to healthy, secure and reliable water is critical.

Stepping back to look at the big picture, while grocery store clerks, health care workers, first responders and others have rightly been deemed essential workers and lauded for their important work, the efforts of irrigators throughout the United States have gone largely unnoticed and underappreciated. Farmers and ranchers — particularly those who make efficient use of water part of their businesses — are the true unsung heroes of this moment.

On behalf of the Walton Family Foundation, I have the honor of leading our Colorado River Initiative within the Environment Program, where we are working to ensure a healthy Colorado River Basin for the benefit of the environment and communities. We work closely with irrigators, conservation organizations, water leaders, tribes and others to find solutions to the most challenging water management issues facing the West.

Hardest-working river

By volume, the Colorado River is ranked 37th in the country, but it punches well above its weight in terms of importance. The Colorado River serves approximately 40 million people and irrigates over five million acres of land, and it has sometimes been described as the hardest-working river in the world. It has carved out majestic landscapes such as the Grand Canyon, and many of its tributaries provide vital habitat for fish, birds and wildlife. The Colorado River serves cities from Denver to Los Angeles, through a variety of transmountain diversions.

In the face of climate change and massive population growth, the Colorado River continually is asked to do more, with less. Farmers and ranchers understand this, because it’s vital to their livelihoods. They are leading the way in showing us how we can better manage our water resources in ways that can benefit the river basin — and their bottom lines. We can help irrigators solve increasingly severe water management challenges.

The importance of good data

The Walton Family Foundation has supported a variety of different projects and programs that explore how we can work with irrigators to better manage our water resources. One of the most recent and exciting developments has been a project called OpenET, which is using best available science and publicly available data to fill the biggest data gap in water management in the West. OpenET will launch in 2021 and provide easily accessible, satellite-based evapotranspiration data to help farmers and water managers understand how much water crops are using to grow, and it will accelerate innovation and conservation in water management. A collaborative effort between NASA, the Desert Research Institute, Environmental Defense Fund, Google and others, the platform will provide field-scale ET estimates for the entire Western United States, with data available as far back as 1985. The steering committee for this project includes several agricultural leaders from the Western United States.

ET includes both evaporation from the land and transpiration from plants, and ET estimates can serve as a good metric for consumptive water use. The ability to easily access accurate information on ET is central to advancing the use of data-driven irrigation management strategies, expanding incentive-driven conservation programs, providing proper credit for investments in agricultural water conservation and reducing transaction costs for water markets. OpenET will empower irrigators and water managers across the West to build a more accurate understanding of their water budgets, resulting in a more resilient system for agriculture, people and wildlife. The platform will also help level the playing field and build a shared basis for decision-making by providing all water users and water managers with the same access to transparent and timely data.

To read more about the OpenET platform, visit: www.OpenETdata.org.

Before and after photos of infrastructure improvements to a critical portion of the Canyon Canal below the Roller Dam. (Photo credit: Mark Harris)

Flexible water management tools

We must find better, more effective ways of deploying the tools at our disposal, which is why we also support projects and programs that improve, increase and demonstrate the benefits of flexible water management — including the upper Colorado River system conservation pilot program, the state of Colorado’s Alternative to Agricultural Transfer Mechanisms Program and other demand management demonstration projects.


The Colorado River serves approximately 40 million people and irrigates over five million acres of land.


The goal of these projects and programs is to reduce the use of “buy and dry” methods to serve other sectors’ growing demands for water. Farmers and ranchers have led in the development and application of tools that can conserve consumptive use (e.g., crop switching, deficit irrigation, split-season crops) through incentives while keeping the water rights with the land. Early work on these methods is also demonstrating that the benefits of these programs can extend well beyond the confines of water conservation.

Stacking benefits

One example of how water conservation projects can succeed at stacking benefits is a project we supported in Western Colorado. The Grand Valley Water Users’ Association ran a two-year program where irrigators, who were interested in conserving water in return for compensation, submitted proposals. 

The 22 irrigators who participated in the Conserved Consumptive Use Pilot Project (CCUPP) all found some economic advantages to their participation in the program. The agronomic uses and benefits varied, from fallowing to deficit irrigation and split-season irrigation. Some benefits included the use of temporarily fallowed ground to: 1) spread accumulated feedlot manure; 2) control weeds; 3) improve or change rotational plans; 4) evaluate and improve soil health; and 5) investigate implementation of limited irrigation cropping systems into livestock operations. 

Irrigated land in the Grand Valley alongside a fallowed field, which was participating in the CCUPP. (Photo credit: Mark Harris)

While the chosen irrigators who reduced their consumptive use, through a variety of methods, received payment for their reductions in consumptive use, some of the funding of this program supported much-needed infrastructure improvements for the association. Thus, even if an irrigator did not participate in the program, they benefited from the improvements to the diversion structure and canal. The conserved water did not run through the canal, but instead ran through the association’s hydropower plant, generating hydropower. After the conserved water ran through the hydropower plant, it then ran into the “15-mile reach,” a stretch of the Colorado River that had been designated as critical habitat for four endangered fish, providing additional flows for these endangered fish. The conserved water then ran down through a stretch of Colorado River that is used by rafting companies for recreational economic benefits. Finally, the conserved water flowed down to Lake Powell, where it was available to provide additional water security.

The Grand Valley Water Users’ Association benefitted in a variety of ways. The CCUPP supported its ongoing System Optimization Review, initiated a conversation focused on the tough questions a warming climate and more variable hydrology raise, and organizational funds secured through CCUPP provided the association with the resources to improve a critical portion of the Canyon Canal below the Roller Dam.  


Water management solutions that may seem to be panaceas will not work if they don’t work for the agricultural community.


These types of tools continue to be explored through demonstration projects. But, one thing is clear — agricultural producers need to experiment to see if there are options and creative solutions that can be used to provide a more efficient use of  water and that can also be integrated into their business models to improve their bottom lines. Water management solutions that may seem to be panaceas will not work if they don’t work for the agricultural community.

Sam and Helen Walton established the Walton Family Foundation in order to create access to opportunities for people and communities. Within the Foundation’s Environment Program, those opportunities exist primarily in rural communities that have deep connections to the land and water. That is a key reason why we partner with farmers and ranchers in order to solve the water challenges facing us — for those who are closest to the problem are usually closest to the solutions.

Ted Kowalski is a senior program officer, leading the Walton Family Foundation’s Colorado River initiative. In this role, he supports work that promotes sustainable management of the Colorado River in order to benefit rivers and communities.

Federal programs offering additional resources for irrigators

  • Regional Conservation Partnership Program 
  • Environmental Quality Incentives Program 
  • Conservation Reserve Enhancement Program 
  • Watershed Program (PL-566)

Go to www.nrcs.usda.gov for more information about these programs.

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